Could striving for happiness be making you unhappy? A desire to be happy seems to be something all people share. The idea of happiness has had the attention of many fields of inquiry, from philosophers and theologians to social and behavioural scientists. The persuasive ideas of Aristotle linked happiness to a life of virtuous and moral behaviours.
Modern day research is largely supportive of Aristotle. Studies reveal that happiness is a state of mind. We can decide to be happy – it’s our choice. Happiness is not contingent on some person, place or thing. Whilst it is true that how people experience the world is shaped by their particular environment, a privileged environment does not guarantee happiness just as the opposite does not mandate misery. As psychologist William James said, “The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human can alter his life by altering his attitude.”
Two sources of happiness
Happiness can be an external or internal creation. When triggered by something or someone external, happiness is usually short-lived. When cultivated internally, by leading a life consistent with inner beliefs and values, happiness can be enduring. There is nothing inherently wrong with external sources of happiness, unless or until they become the only source of happiness for which we strive.
A lot of people, myself included at times, seem to behave as if they will be happy when this person does this or that, or if this or that were to happen at home, or at work. This type of contingent happiness may or may not happen. If it does, it’s unlikely to last long, and will then need to be replaced. People can find themselves in a continuous search for the next ‘happiness hit’. Caught in this sort of happiness-seeking loop, people become despondent and can even feel a sense of shame or guilt for not being in the same permanent state of bliss they falsely perceive they see in others.
As a state of mind, happiness cannot be forced, nor found; or lost for that matter. Happiness is much more than being in a good mood; it is a state of wellness that encompasses living a decent life in accordance with moral values, a sense of meaning and of purpose.
Strategies to promote happiness
The one thing that has been consistently associated with happiness is love, in all its forms. Behaviours that are less self-centred and more other-centred create and strengthen intimate bonds with others that protect us from hardships, delay mental and physical decline and promote long-term happiness. Give it away to keep it.
Happiness can be as simple, or as tricky, as becoming more mindful by sitting still and focusing on your breath. Research shows meditation practice can help switch brain activity from the right side, which has been linked to depression, anxiety, and worry; to the left side, which has been related to happiness, excitement, joy and alertness. Further, recent advances in neuroscience have found the brain has a degree of plasticity, that is, an ability to regenerate and change.
Not only can meditation redirect the attention of the brain, it can also enhance its overall capacity. One investigation conducted on a French monk, Matthieu Richard, found that whilst in the process of a ‘loving-kindness’ meditation, his brain recorded its largest capacity for happiness. Give meditation a go!
One seemingly simple behaviour to foster happiness is to replace a frown with a smile; or as the saying goes, turn that frown upside down! It may sound silly, but there is a lot of evidence that links smiling and an elevated mood. That doesn’t mean substitute a frown with a fake insincere forced grin. What it’s really getting at is those who make an effort to behave in a less negative fashion, and so are less inclined to frown, will smile more often and generally feel more content. You can go a long way with an attitude of gratitude.
Kane, S. (2017). 15 ways to increase your happiness. Psych Central. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/11b/15-ways-to-increase-your-happiness.
Ruhl, C. (2020, Sept 28). William James biography and contributions to psychology. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/William-james.html
The Pursuit of Happiness (2018) Aristotle. Retrieved from
https://www. pursuit of happiness.org/history-of-happiness/aristotle